CHL Student Buzz: Meet Michael Rees…

27th August 2021

Student, Tok Pisin Language Program

When Darwin-based dentist Michael Rees heard about the Tok Pisin language program at ANU, he didn’t think twice. This was the perfect opportunity to not only revisit the language he had spoken as a child in Papua New Guinea (PNG), but also to extend his skills and experience as a translator in Tok Pisin. And what’s more, Michael discovered that studying the language gave him so much more than just his past…

"For me, returning to university to study in a very different field from dentistry was a great decision. Studying a language at ANU exceeded all my expectations, and I thank CHL and ANU for giving me the opportunity to do so."

1. Tell us a bit about yourself—what you do currently and what you studied.

I am a dentist living in Darwin, where I have been working in general practice for the last 25 years. I studied dentistry at the University of Sydney where I graduated with honours in 1993. I primarily work in private practice, but I am also involved in the delivery of dental services for remote communities in the NT.

2. What drew you to Tok Pisin?

Tok Pisin has been a part of my life for a very long time. I learned to speak Tok Pisin as a child when I was living in PNG in the late 1970s—including a year spent living in a remote part of the Eastern Highlands province where I was speaking Tok Pisin on a daily basis. When I became aware that ANU was teaching the language, I decided to revisit a language I had learnt as a child and formalise my qualification at a university level!

3. What were your top 3 favourite things about your language program?

I loved that the course challenged me repeatedly—on a weekly basis I was being asked to do things in a language that I never would have thought I would have been capable of. Some of the translation and oral work was quite complex, and I felt a real sense of achievement at being able to arrive at a better-than-acceptable level in my translations and oral assignments.

Secondly, I loved the participation of guest lecturers from other departments in ANU—this gave us a wide range of topics to discuss in language and increased our awareness of the subtly different versions of Tok Pisin spoken in different parts of PNG and the Pacific. Further, Jenny Homerang’s weekly classes were something I really enjoyed. Her teaching made classes a joy to be a part of. I will miss my Thursday afternoons on Zoom!

4. Can you name 3 reasons for people to study Tok Pisin?

PNG is our nearest neighbour and the largest nation in the South Pacific. We share a long history, and there are close ties between Australia and PNG. Tok Pisin is the official language of PNG and used in the PNG National Parliament. Learning Tok Pisin is an opportunity to engage more deeply with PNG and gain a greater understanding of our shared past and future together—we will always be neighbours.

There are more than 800 languages spoken in PNG, but more PNG people speak Tok Pisin more than any other language. For anyone interested in the study of more uncommon PNG languages, proficiency in Tok Pisin would be regarded as essential, serving as a bridge between English and Tok Ples (local and more geographically isolated languages).

And finally, there are not very many people who were born in Australia who speak Tok Pisin well. Australia and Australians will benefit in so many ways if more of us develop skills in Tok Pisin; the relationship between Australia and PNG will benefit too.

5. How does it help /has it helped you in your profession or in life?

Learning Tok Pisin has encouraged me to learn to think in another language and to examine how important culture, customs and history are to the way it is spoken and what is said. This has given me a greater understanding of the challenges faced by people speaking English as a second language. This can only be of assistance to me in both my professional and personal life.

6. Can you share a fascinating/fun fact about Tok Pisin/something you find particularly incredible about the language?

The foundation text for the Tok Pisin course, The Jacaranda Dictionary and Grammar of Melanesian Pidgin, was first published the year after I was born (I turned 50 last year!). Tok Pisin has been widely spoken by people in Melanesia since the nineteenth century, but it took more than 100 years for the first comprehensive dictionary to be researched and published. Tok Pisin is a resilient and adaptable language developed by Melanesian people, for Melanesian people. Although it shares a lot of English words, it is not necessarily an easy language for English speakers to learn to speak well. One of my favourite Tok Pisin words is Lilimbur (to stroll, meander or take a tour). The word has an evocative sound consistent with its meaning; it literally rolls off the tongue and the sound is very apt for the action/situation it describes. It has Melanesian origins and is not derived from Asian or European languages.

7. What are your future plans with respect to Tok Pisin or any other language?

I have been doing some paid work as a first-person translator since completing Tok Pisin 4, and I am also involved in the translation of written material to be used in health care programs within PNG.

As for the future, I am hoping to hear news that ANU will be offering further opportunities to study in Tok Pisin 5 and Tok Pisin 6. I am looking to extend my skills and experience as a translator in Tok Pisin and see where it leads me. There is still a lot I want to do with the language skills I have learnt through CHL ANU.

8. Anything else you’d like to share? An interesting anecdote about your study of the language perhaps?

For me, returning to university to study in a very different field from dentistry was a great decision. Studying a language at ANU exceeded all my expectations, and I thank CHL and ANU for giving me the opportunity to do so. Em Tasol (That’s all)!

If you’ve always wanted to learn Tok Pisin but thought you were too late, Michael’s story would have definitely inspired you—it’s never too late, but why wait? Not sure where to begin? Enquire now!

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